The GL is dead, long live the GL

A lot has happened since the last blog. That’s the curse, when things are interesting there’s often no enough time to write, and when I have time it’s usually because nothing is happening.

So here I sit in a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Pennsylvania, snarfing up the speedy wifi and catching up on work & blog … with a lot of stories to tell from the past two weeks.  (I’ll get to Alumapalooza later, this blog is about our tow vehicle.)

The short version is that I condemned our 2009 Mercedes GL320, because it was getting about as reliable as an incontinent cat. At only 134,000 miles it had only about half the miles I had hoped to accumulate, but still with a respectable eight years of service.

After the wet-computer episode in Kansas, I had to take stock of the car to decide if it made sense to keep it on the road.

By the time we got to Ohio I was fairly certain the best economic outcome would be to replace the car ASAP despite the fact that this would put us into a car payment again.  Beyond that, we can’t really tolerate an unreliable vehicle, with all the long-distance and frequently remote travel we do.

As I’ve mentioned a few times here, I really like towing with diesel. Until an electric tow vehicle enters the market with reasonable range, there’s no powerplant available that performs like diesel for towing—and yields astonishingly good fuel economy when not towing. Unfortunately, all the V-6 passenger car diesels in North America have been suspended due to continuing fallout from the VW/Audi “dieselgate” mess.  We tried, but we just couldn’t wrap our heads around a pickup truck (and there’s only one light-duty diesel truck left since the Dodge RAM Ecodiesel was suspended).

2015 Mercedes GL350 diesel

My friend Chris, who just happens to be the General Manager of a Mercedes Benz dealership, found me a 2015 Mercedes GL350 diesel with Certified Pre-Owned Warranty. I wasn’t going to go back to Mercedes after all the reliability issues of the previous GL, but the CPO Warranty swayed me. See, it has something that’s worth a lot to me: an UNLIMITED MILEAGE Mercedes-Benz warranty. So whatever happens between now and August 2021 is on their dime, not mine.  We’ll probably accumulate 70-100k miles in that time.

Now, if switching tow vehicles in the middle of a trip seems like a hassle, try it in the middle of Alumapalooza. This deal would never have come off if not for the supreme efforts of Chris and Super Terry. Chris bought the car at a dealer auction, got it certified quickly, and arranged for a driver to bring it halfway from Pennsylvania.  Super Terry jumped in our old GL and drove four hours to meet the other driver, swapped cars and paperwork, then turned around and brought it back to Ohio. Both of those guys are heroes to me.

Switching from one GL to another simplified one aspect: we didn’t have to mess with hitch ball height or anything else. We just moved our stuff and installed a wireless brake controller. Bam! Done. Super Terry even installed the brake control module on the trailer for me.

[By the way, I’m now a fan of the Tekonsha Prodigy Wireless Brake Controller. It works well just like our previous Prodigy but without any wiring on the tow vehicle. You just plug the remote into a cigarette lighter outlet, which means I can move it from one vehicle to another in seconds and I won’t have to worry about the car’s computer deciding to shut it off because it got wet & grumpy.]

The new car has been great so far.  After Alumapalooza we towed over to Ohiopyle PA and I was shocked at how much better the 2015 drove compared to the 2009. A bit more power, much quieter, smoother acceleration, lighter steering, lots of interesting tech, etc. It’s really almost a decadent experience to be towing with it.

The Mercedes receiver hitch is considerably better in the 2015 than the 2009, so we’ve been able to just drop the Airstream on it without a problem but we do plan to get a reinforcement installed this summer, once we are settled in the northeast and have time to breathe. I plan to make this car work for its living, just like the last one, and I don’t ever want to have a hitch issue crop up.

Right now we’re stopped at the dealership to get a few minor niggles handled (nothing serious) and tomorrow we’ll be on our way north. I’ll backfill the blog over the next few days with posts about our 12 days in Jackson Center for Alumapalooza, and our stop in the lovely little town of Ohiopyle.

A Grand Tour

I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time—and wondering if we could really pull it off.

It started on Saturday, when I was in Vermont after the 6-day motorcycle trip to the Adirondacks. I only had a couple of days to catch up on work and re-pack for a trip out west. From Sunday morning on, I had the singular experience of waking up somewhere and knowing that I would be going to bed somewhere entirely different that night.

In the Airstream, this is fun. You can roam where you want, knowing that each night you will end up in your comfortable rolling home and familiar bed. But when the travel involves airlines and hotel rooms, the charm tends to slip away quickly.

It began on Saturday night when Eleanor and I relocated to an airport motel, so that on Sunday morning at 3:30 a.m. she could take me to catch a flight from Vermont to New York City, and onward to Sacramento CA.  I met Brett at the airport in Sacramento, to drive around California’s beautiful countryside. (We were scouting a site for Alumafandango 2016, and things went very well. We’ll have an announcement about that in July.) That night we split a room at some nondescript motel off Rt 49, in an area of California that was once known for gold mining, and now is known for wineries. That was our 27-hour Day One.

Monday morning we scouted some more, visited the state capitol, and caught a late flight to Tucson, getting in around midnight. We settled into my house for the night. That was Day Two.

Tuesday morning we picked up a shiny new Airstream Interstate Grand Tour on loan from Airstream, at the local dealership (Lazydays), loaded it up with about 100 pounds of gear and food (much of which Eleanor had set out for us a month ago) and launched immediately toward Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. We spent that night at Fool Hollow Lake State Park in Show Low.  Day Three.

Now I have to say that the Airstream Interstate was a fantastic relief after jet planes and motel rooms. Not only could we slow down our pace of travel, but it meant that for a while we could sleep in a bed more than once. The Airstream, stocked with our food and gear, could be our home.

Airstream Interstate in AZ

And what a glamorous home it is.  The new Grand Tour floorplan of the Interstate is a big improvement for those who want more of a traditional RV. Bigger kitchen, double the fridge/freezer space, much more storage, permanent beds, a nice little desk, and many other small pleasantries make it really usable. If you read my blogs from last summer when I tried out a regular Interstate, you know I liked driving it, and the Grand Tour retains that fine handling and ride (and an incredible list of safety features).

Airstream Interstate Salt River canyonWhen Brett and travel together there’s always a little bit of a battle over who gets to drive, and with the Interstate there was no question we both wanted the wheel as much as possible. I had picked the most scenic route I could on our northward journey, from Tucson to Globe, and then up to the beautiful Salt River Canyon, and finally up the Mogollon Rim to Show Low where the pine trees are tall and the summer air is much cooler than the low desert below. Even when we were gaping at the scenery deep in the Salt River Canyon, Brett wanted to keep the driver’s seat rather than give it up to get a better view.

We averaged about 15.5 MPG on that trip, which is pretty impressive for a 25-foot long motorhome on a hilly climb that eventually ended well over 6,000 ft. Or at least we thought that was good until the next day when we averaged 18 MPG on more level terrain through the Navajo nation in northern Arizona.

The goal for this leg was Navajo National Monument, a less-visited national park near Kayenta AZ.  We first visited as a family on 2008, and hiked 5 miles roundtrip to the impressive Betatakin cliff dwelling. Ever since that trip, I’ve wanted to go back to visit the even-more-impressive Keet Seel cliff dwellings, and this trip was finally my chance.

You don’t just pop in and hike to Keet Seel. The trip requires a permit from the park, a mandatory orientation by a ranger, good gear, and some stamina. It’s an 18 mile round-trip on foot if you do it right, and considerably longer if you miss a turn in the canyons. (More on that later.) So you can see that getting to this point was the product of planning we’d done months in advance.

The Interstate turned out to be an ideal base camp for this trip.  We parked in a canyon view site (in the Navajo Nat’l Monument campground, which is free, no hookups), and spent the evening checking our gear and eating dinner outside with a spectacular view of the sunset on the red Navajo Sandstone. One nice thing about the Interstate is that it fits in places a travel trailer couldn’t go, and there’s virtually no setup after arriving. We just pushed the electric awning button and slid open the big side door.

Airstream Interstate Navajo National Monument

And that was Day Four.  Funny how the days seemed to be much more filled with adventure and camaraderie now that we were traveling at about 50 MPH instead of 500.

The next morning we hoisted our packs, loaded with about 30 pounds of gear and water each, and walked right from the door of the Airstream down a dusty road and began our descent into the canyons …

Keet Seel deserves its own blog entry, so I’ll write more about that in the next day. Stay tuned.

Airstream LED lights and European tow vehicles

Since we’re back at home base for a while, I’m going to be posting mostly about Airstream maintenance stuff.  Those of you who are looking for pretty pictures and stories about the family might want to avert your eyes for a while.

Several times a year I get inquiries from new Airstream owners who have European tow vehicles (mostly Mercedes, but also BMW, VW, Audi, Porsche, etc) and are having trouble getting straight information about hitching the two vehicles up properly.  I can’t cover the entire topic because it’s quite complicated but I’d like to cover at least one common problem.

The Europeans have been using clever computers in their cars, which measure the resistance of the trailer lights to determine if there is a trailer attached.  If there’s no trailer, the computer turns off the 7-way plug.  I don’t know why this matters, since American tow vehicles leave the plug constantly powered and it doesn’t seem to cause problems.  It may be a case of being just a little too clever, because this resistance-sensing scheme is baffled by trailers that have LED tail lights, as all new Airstreams do.

So imagine the happy new Airstream owner with a fancy BMW/Mercedes/whatever to pull it, and you’d think he’d be on Cloud Nine but when he goes to hitch up, the brake lights don’t come on and (on some vehicles, like Mercedes) the brake controller has no power.  The darned computer has turned off the power because it thinks there is no trailer.  All that money spent on a nice car and a nice trailer, and yet it’s stuck in the driveway with no lights.

LED lights on trailers are nothing new, so you’d think that the European vehicle manufacturers might have figured this one out by now.  Indeed Volkswagen has.  They sell a special patch cable that contains a resistor, which you can buy (if you search carefully on the Internet or have the part number at the dealer) for about $40.  This works, and it’s stupid.

It’s stupid because the resistance cable adds in a couple feet of length, so the cord is now too long and must be secured in some kludgy way.  Secure it incorrectly and one day you’ll find it dragging down the road.  And the patch cable is stupid because it adds another point of connection, and the connectors on 7-way cables are famous for corroding in the weather, so you’ve just lowered the reliability of your lights and brakes.

IMG_2078Andy Thomson at Can-Am RV helped me out with this one when we bought our Mercedes GL320 in 2009, and I’ve passed on the knowledge many times since then.  His solution is the best one, I think: just wire in some incandescent lights into the system.  (You could use resistors but light bulbs are easy to mount, and easy to find and replace on the road if needed.)  Andy uses the clearance lights that were found on older Airstreams, because they have two bulbs.  If one goes, there is some redundancy and you can swap a bulb from another light for a while.

The photo above is from our trailer.  We just mounted the clearance lights right on the floor in Eleanor’s closet, with all the other main 12-volt junctions.  This is normally covered with a box so you can’t see it.  Because the lights are kept out of the weather, they should last a long time.  We’ve been using this system for about four years.

LED Lighting FixThis solution is really easy for the DIY’er to install.  You just wire the lights into the relevant circuits.  The easiest place to do this is in the “rats nest” of wiring where the 7-way connector enters the trailer. This is usually in the front closet or under the front sofa, or behind an access panel in the front storage compartment, on the street side of the trailer.  (The diagram above is by Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.)

Once you’ve made this simple modification, your Airstream lights and brakes should work with any tow vehicle.  If you ever have a problem on the road, check the 7-way connector for corrosion first, because the LED lights and this modification should be highly reliable.

Shore excursions

It’s fun to be in “project mode” as long as there aren’t too many projects.  Last week I got much of the Winter 2012 magazine in viable condition, enough to at least ship big chunks of it off to my Art Director.  I thought it was going to be harder than it was, but surprised myself by having completed a lot of the initial work back in July and early August before we hit the road for Colorado.  So things went smoothly. After eight years of being Editor I might actually be getting competent at it.

Having wrestled that job into partial submission, it was time to look at the next round of events.  I’m really focused on Alumafiesta, which will be next February, here in Tucson.  That event is looking like serious fun.  We are doing almost everything differently at this one: full hookup RV resort with all the luxe amenities, numerous off-site excursions and tours, and lots of planned meals (some included, some optional).  It will be sort of like being on a cruise ship, except you don’t have to tip anybody.

My job this week has been to research all the events and attractions we want to visit, and make group reservations, plus get all our leaders lined up.  So far we are confirmed for two bike rides, one hike and one historical walk, two photo safaris, three visits to Gem Show venues, two breakfasts, one dinner, one concert by Antsy McClain, four exercise sessions, four evening presentations, a swap meet, a guided scenic drive through Saguaro National Park, the Aluminum Chef competition, and three guided tours (Franklin Auto Museum, Tucson Museum of Art, San Xavier Mission).  All of that is included in the base price. Of course our usual Happy Hours with lots of door prizes will happen daily too.

We’ve also got optional “shore excursions” (at extra cost) to the Pima Air & Space Museum, Tohono Chul Park, Sonoran Desert Museum, Tin Town, three optional lunches around town, and a chance to blow your own glass at the Sonoran Glass School.  My job is to get it all nailed down in the next couple of weeks so participants can make their reservations for those activities that can take only a limited number of people.  It’s not easy, but it’s a heck of lot more fun than fighting with electrical infrastructure …

One of my tasks this week is to go over to Lazydays (the venue for Alumafiesta) and verify a few things, like the temperature of the heated pools.  (We’re planning an Aqua Fitness program on one of the days.)  I’ve got to check out the doggie area, verify that we can get a trailer indoors if we need to (for demos), talk to the front desk staff, etc.  I can handle this sort of assignment.

Things went so well the past two weeks that I even found a little time to work on a book project.  That’s a long term one for sure, but it’s a great feeling to put even a few hours into a book, and see it advance by increments toward completion.  Plus, it’s good to have some variety at work, to keep from getting stale.

At home, we’re still raising orphan kittens for the Humane Society, and that is going well despite numerous feline output-related messes and some initial worry about whether they were gaining weight appropriately.  The beasties have gained a few ounces and have warmed to our attention, to the point that they will cuddle in the evening rather than hissing at us.  Our house is slowly being kitten-proofed, which is a lot like the change we went through when Emma was a toddler.  Except that kittens can get under the couch.

Another project: I have come to face the fact that I really miss my old Mercedes 300D and would like to someday get a similar car.  Financially I’ll have to sacrifice something in order to be able to fund another project car, but it seems worth it if I can find the right starting point, meaning a vehicle of proper vintage, condition, and style.  You will undoubtedly read more from me on this later.  For now, know that The Hunt is back on.  I’m simultaneously chasing W123, W124, and W201 chassis diesels all over the USA. Of course, it would be best to find something right here in southern Arizona or southern California, where old cars are plentiful and rust is unknown, so that’s the focus area.

We are still contemplating the Airstream Safari makeover.  To spread out the cost, we are considering just re-upholstering the dinette for now (easily removed and replaced) and replacing the floor covering later, or replacing only the bedroom carpet.  My elaborate plans to add fancy new electronics, countertops, etc. are likely to be scratched until next year.  Upholstery and flooring are terrifyingly expensive, either in terms of cash or labor hours.  Slow and steady may be a better approach for us than a full-blown gut & refurb project.

Travel-wise, this is our season to recoup and plan ahead.  The GL320 now has been serviced and is sporting a fresh set of Bridgestone tires, for which I have high hopes.  The spare is on order.  The Airstream could use a few tweaks here and there but is basically ready to go.  The fuel bill from the last trip (2,400 miles) has been paid.  We could zip out right now, but better to stay put for a while and enjoy home life, take care of business, take a few local “shore excursions”, practice with the Dutch Oven, raise cats, and perhaps even gain some perspective on our travels.  There will be new travel coming soon enough.

The trip to the Terra Port

We are at Airstream, in the village of Jackson Center, Ohio.  I took a day off blogging yesterday, so here’s a rundown of the past two days.

Our drive from Johnson Saulk Trail State Park to our next stop of South Bend IN was uneventful.  This would not be news except for our history: every other year we’ve driven past the Chicago/Gary area, traffic on I-80 has been horrible with congestion and construction.  This year the work seems to be mostly done, and it was a smooth ride on new concrete all the way to the Indiana Toll Road.  We landed at Charlie & Lynn’s house in South Bend right on schedule.

It has become a sort of tradition for us to stop with Lynn and Charlie nearly every year.  They were our first stop in October 2005 when we began full-timing with the Airstream Safari, and they’ve made us so at home that we just keep showing up. The last three years we have made their driveway our home as a final stop right before Alumapalooza. It’s a last chance for us to recover from the long drive before we jump into the tempest that is Alumapalooza.

This year was no different.  We set up the Airstream, visited the horses, and took Charlie’s vintage Mercedes (300SEL, I believe from 1959) down the country roads to get some pizza.  It was exactly what we needed: a chance to unwind and hang out in a peaceful, low pressure setting.

And the weather was just spectacular.  Perhaps that’s what inspired us to clean the trailer’s windows and the mini-blinds in the kitchen, the next morning.  They had suffered from a year of dust and uck while parked in Vermont last summer and all winter in Arizona, and were long overdue for a good cleanup.

Or perhaps we were just delaying the inevitable.  The forecast was quite different for Jackson Center, 200 miles away by road:  90+ degrees and “oppressive” humidity, and none of us were eager to get into that for the weekend.  But we did arrive in J.C. by 2:45 p.m. and it was indeed oppressive.  In fact, Alex K was already on site (he’s acting as our resident weather reporter this week) and he declared that the heat index was officially 100 degrees by late afternoon.  It’s supposed to stay that way through Monday, but then cool down nicely for Alumapalooza.  In the meantime, air conditioning is our friend.

We seemed to be nearly the last members of the advance team to arrive.  Brett & Lisa got here Thursday, Alex & Charon also, Tim & Alice got here Friday, Matt & Beth were probably here a couple of days ago, and Lou & Larry beat us to the site today by about 15 minutes. In our defense, let me note that our drive was further than anyone’s at 2,450 miles total.

We did a little chatting about details of the event setup, but the real work won’t begin until tomorrow.  Tonight Matt organized a small potluck dinner at the picnic tables under the hickory trees that border Airstream’s Terra Port, and despite the heat we all had a nice evening.  Tomorrow we are holding a small appreciation breakfast for the volunteers who work the event, and then the work begins with flagging the sites and stuffing the goody bags.

For those of you who are coming to Alumapalooza, the field looks nice and dry and evenly mowed—just perfect for the event.  The chance of rain is very low for the next few days (except for a 30% chance on Tuesday) and the temperatures should be ideal.  If you planned to come this year, you’re in for a very fun week!